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Archive for the ‘Comics on Page and Screen’ Category

By Bob Clark

In one of those now perennial summer seasons during which the theaters suffer a surplus of big-budgeted movies derived from superhero stories and other narratives originating in the sequential arts, it seems an apt time to reevaluate and consider what most people really mean when they talk, usually with some matter of condescension, of the so-called “comic book movie”. Whenever one’s talking about something that’s literally based on a comic book, like any of the myriad of Marvel or DC properties that have found themselves transformed into blockbuster entertainment in the past few months (to say nothing of the film franchises that have spawned them over the past twenty or thirty years), the term feels correct, but mostly superficial. Yes, characters like Batman or the Avengers first made their debut in the pages of comics, but we don’t ordinarily define stories or characters from other sources by the medium they originated from– we don’t label Branagh’s or Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations “theater movies” or Coppola’s Godfather trilogy “novels on film” (though he himself did label a chronological recut of them a “novel for television”). And there’s plenty more films that find themselves slapped with the “comic book movie” label despite being based on something from another source (the perfectly cast but horribly directed The Shadow, jumping to movie screens from the radio) or even being an original work altogether that merely shares the same genre elements (one could call the Flash Gordon film a “comic book” movie and almost be correct, but not so with other, more successful space operas).

For the most part, “comic book movie” is really nothing more than a term of shallow genre disparagement, looking only for the most base similarities between the stories and visual deliveries and sufficing to end the comparison there before deeper looks can even be attempted. And though that line of thinking very often results in the unjust writing off of great, unlikely seeming works both derived from comics (most could watch Road to Perdition and History of Violence and be none the wiser of their origins) and within the medium itself, I can’t help but wonder if the critics who rely upon treading water with that term may occasionally stumble on a more interesting truth that goes beyond the base genre similarities and further into the ways that the two mediums are linked, and more importantly separated. For as many have observed as the two art forms have developed over the course of the past century, both cinema and comics share a great deal in common as embodiments of visual storytelling. More than any other expressive forms, one is able to express the emotions and communicate the substance of a narrative above and beyond the boundaries of language to a larger audience in these mediums– it helps to be able to understand the language any given work is created in, or at the very least have a reliable translation provided, but even without that there’s something about the sheer visual language of comics and cinema that can allow one to follow any given sequence of moving or still imagery and keep up with it, somewhat. It’s that difference between moving and still imagery, however, that makes the creative opportunities offered by the two mediums so distinct, yet also what can create frustration when those opportunities aren’t taken full advantage of. In that regard, though it’s based on Junji Ito’s jaw-dropping manga, Takayuki Hirao’s animated film of Gyo is one of those comic-book inspired works that deserves better than to be called a mere “comic book movie”.

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By Bob Clark

It almost seems inevitable now that Christopher Nolan’s latest and last Batman movie should find itself treading upon so many political fault lines as it finds itself released this weekend. No, not for the tragic events which occurred during midnight screenings in Colorado or the debate it’s rekindling on the subject of national registration for firearms. And no, not for the false-flag buffoonery on the part of Rush Limbaugh for insisting that liberals would try to make a connection between the name of the film’s nearly 20 year old super-villain and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s venture capital firm. Not even for the news that Nolan himself engendered when the film’s production shot on location in the New York financial district during the peak of the Occupy Wall Street movement, where the idea was nursed to put the protestors themselves onscreen as stand-ins for economic unrest in Gotham City, though that one strikes somewhat closer to home. Maybe it’s because Nolan allows his real-world vision of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic-book creation less and less fictional filtration in this final installment– instead of the mostly set-bound Batman Begins and the anonymous Chicago look of The Dark Knight, this last film features long action-sequences and skyline shots that prominently feature iconic Manhattan architecture, from the Empire State Building to Trinity Church. As such, it’s harder to let all the explosive histrionics slide, nor the conclusions they help facilitate once all the smoke clears, and the only conclusion I can reach is one that I saw coming back when considering the previous entries of Nolan’s films of the Dark Knight detective– this is a Batman who favors his Right Wing.

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By Bob Clark

The Spider-Man character is now celebrating its 50th anniversary in the pages of Marvel Comics, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in the pages of Amazing Fantasy before being granted a full book of its own that would eventually become one of the flagship titles for both that particular publishing house and for superhero comics in general. It’s almost surprising that it took until 2002 for the first full-fledged motion picture starring Peter Parker, the science-geek turned teenage hero after a fateful bite from a radioactive spider, especially considering that before then there were no less than four Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, four live action Batman films with three different Bruce Waynes (and another eventually on the way courtesy of Nolan & Co.), one big-screen X-Men adventure and countless animated versions on the small-screen, as well as a handful of live-action series like The Incredible Hulk (there was also that movie Ang Lee did, but whatever). But then Spider-Man, like most of the Marvel superheroes, relied on powers that weren’t quite so easy to put on screen given the limitations of physically captured special effects in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s really not that difficult to make us believe a man can fly, or make us wonder where a vigilante gets such wonderful toys, but asking us to buy that a high-school kid can climb a skyscraper with his bare hands and swing from the rooftops with spinneret silly string? All one has to do is look at the live-action Spider-Man series from the 70’s to see how dreadfully silly it could look without the right tools at your disposal.

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By Bob Clark

Though it’s been more and more infrequent in the past fifteen years or more, there used to be a fairly common occurrence of half-hour animated specials produced from American comic-strips, usually centering around some kind of holiday-related special occasion, the gold standard being the classic Charlie Brown Christmas. Those and other Peanuts specials from creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Melendez managed to translate the peculiar mannerisms of the cartoonist’s celebrated comic-strip so successfully into animation that for decades they managed to serve as the first introduction many children had to characters like Snoopy, Linus and the like. It helped having actual kids supply the voices for the young characters, of course (with Melendez himself providing grunts and howls rich in personality for Snoopy), and especially the accompaniment of Vince Guaraldi’s now standard jazz compositions. But as permanent as that special, the ones that succeeded it, and even the features and series that followed in their wake all marked themselves into the consciousness of whole generations’ worth of children, the animated form of Peanuts never quite outstepped the influence of the original home Schulz found on the comics page, where his work served as an inspiration to countless cartoonists and artists of every stripe (even Godard called him one of the best writers in America) until his death in early 2000.

The same can’t quite be said for some of the other comic-strips to have succeeded in animated form. Some easily outpaced their comics-page counterparts, only serving to remind just how superficial some of those comics were to begin with– the various Garfield cartoons came to life on television in a way that Jim Davis’ strip never approaches thanks to the addition of Lou Rawl’s music and most especially the charmingly deadpan voice of the late Lorenzo Music, such to the point that not even Bill Murray himself could follow in those horrible live-action movies. Aaron McGrudder’s anime-influenced Boondocks series has long-since outpaced the original strip that sired it, at least in terms of his own involvement. Others managed to remain true to their printed sources, but never really reach people on the same level of impact– Berke Breathed’s Bloom County made an honestly charming special centered around Opus the Penguin in A Wish for Wings That Work, but it’s strictly for die-hard fans of the strip, and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse translated well enough into an animated version that’s sure to please anybody who still remembers the long-running Canadian strip even exists. Plenty of high profile strips have never been turned into animated forms of any kind (Bill Waterson would turn in his grave before he was even buried should Calvin and Hobbes be licensed in any way), and plenty more have been brought to television with so little fanfare it’s a wonder anybody knows about them at all (remember Tales From the Far Side? Or that Dilbert series with Daniel Stern and Kathy Griffin? I didn’t think so).

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By Bob Clark

Among the chief architects of my early imagination as far as pop-cultural influences go, there are artists of many disciplines, as befitting a childhood spent in the burgeoning multi-media landscape of the late 80’s and early 90’s. There are predictable entries like Lucas and Spielberg, each of them inventing cinematic experiences out of special-effects assisted whole cloth. There are figures like Jim Henson and the various puppeteers who went into creating the various Muppet productions on film and television. There are Stan Lee and the armies of artists and writers under his Marvel banner helping to weave the pen and ink tapestries of all manner of superheroes. There are Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira Toriyama, Peter Chung and the creators of all manner of other anime I watched during the wee hours, for the sheer pleasure of watching something obviously mature and forbidden. There are newspaper cartoonists like Charles Shultz, Bill Waterson, and even Bill Breathed and Gary Trudeau, even if most of their jokes went over my head until I was almost out of elementary school.

Perhaps most tellingly from the specific time and place I come from, however, there is Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the storied Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda franchises over at Nintendo. What sets his work apart from all the various other creators of film and print media is the interactive quality of his medium– as a game designer, Miyamoto and others like him have crafted not only characters and narratives for audiences to vicariously attach themselves to over the years, but whole experiences to devour first-hand, even if on a limited basis. The adventures that players have shared in the decades’ worth of Mario and Zelda titles allow for a particular kind of generational bond that’s hard to explain fully to anyone who grew up without them, just as I’m sure it’ll be next to impossible for children growing up in the vast labyrinth of cross-media chatter to fully relate to anyone who came of age at the same pace as the technology they use to communicate on a daily, hourly or even minute-by-minute basis.  We don’t just remember these stories, these characters, these places– we were there and lived them together and apart in ways that are analogous only to sharing in a great, communal dream.

It helps that Miyamoto was one of the first artists whose identity I was able to latch onto, at an early age, and invest myself with as a man whose creative process was worthy of paying close attention to, if only to better appreciate his work and get that much closer to actually finishing one of his games. Just as I grew up discovering filmmakers like Kurosawa or Godard through reading interviews with Lucas, I learned more about the personal experiences of the artist and how they can affect their work by soaking up everything I could read about Miyamoto in magazine articles. There were the stories he shared about how his childhood spent exploring the mountainous countryside of his family home  led to the maze-like dungeons and overworlds of the Zelda games, or the discovery of obscure artifacts of Japanese folklore and mythology through power-ups in Super Mario Bros. 3. Maybe most curiously, there was the way that he spoke with curiosity and energy about the way other creative forms worked, and how he wished he could approximate some of their habits. In particular, I recall reading about his fondness for comics, and how he wished that a video-game screen could change shape or size at times, in the way that a manga-panel could. This wasn’t just a talking point on games, or even something that dealt only with comics– this was an introduction to thinking about art in the scale and scope of its production, of thinking about aspect-ratios, and it’s something that I could relate to immediately by thinking of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

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By Bob Clark

This past week has seen a fair number of developments on the American fronts concerning civil rights and prejudice in national politics, all revolving around the  discussion of broadening civil liberties for gays and lesbians. Starting with Vice President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff comments on Meet the Press last Sunday, we’ve seen the Obama administration adopt a strikingly accepting tone for the question of granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples, a step that far exceeds the positions taken by past Democratic office-holders and candidates in the recent past, culminating in the bombshell announcement on Wednesday of the President’s full personal support for marriage equality. Many have looked at this development on purely cynical, partisan competition-minded terms– Biden’s usual hoof-in-mouth elocution stylings forcing Obama to either dispute him and risk losing the Democratic base, or match him and risk losing the rest of the country; the possible motivations of mobilizing said base of younger, more open-minded voters and, more likely, the millions upon millions of funds to be secured from liberal donors. But in my eye, it’s merely been a long-overdue definition of terms that most of us already assumed existed something like this in the first place– Obama didn’t so much come to this decision after long years of soul searching as much as he held in an opinion for a long time that was bound to be controversial, and came out of the closet about it.

Granted, as a mere personal belief as opposed to a public policy statement it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference as far as the way of the nation goes, but as a part of the larger discourse concerning gay rights and prejudice in all forms across the country, it stands as a prime example of the bully pulpit put to good use. It’s especially iconic coming from a President whose very election counters its own centuries-old tide of bigotry and reaffirms the very egalitarian ambitions that helped found the Republic to begin with, and even more especially so considering many of the recent revelations about the presumptive Republican nominee’s past as a prep-school bully who once helped hold a classmate down and cut off his hair, to boot. And as a part of the even larger cultural conversation about the increasingly hostile pattern of physical and emotional bullying in and out of  schools over matters of race, gender, sexual orientation or just plain not-fitting-in, the President’s open-arms endorsement of tolerance over the course of his first term in office and especially this past week stands as one of the defining aspects of his administration (indeed, if the Republicans have their way, it could wind up the only defining aspect that can’t be legislated or litigated into obscurity). As such, between these recent events and the higher profile that Marvel comics have had in recent weeks for obvious reasons, the time seems right to revisit one of the other major comic-book adaptations of the past ten years, and one that adheres remarkably close in spirit to a specific graphic-novel whose very essence is dedicated to the questions of prejudice and bigotry in all its forms. The film in question is Bryan Singer’s X2, and its source material the vaunted God Loves, Man Kills, from 1982.

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By Bob Clark

Truth be told, I’ve always been a lot fonder of the idea of the Marvel Universe than how it usually plays out in the comics themselves. Oh sure, it’s fun to think about how, starting from the 60’s the company became something of an elaborate creative petri dish for Stan Lee and the bevy of writers who would follow in his wake, creating and repurposing characters left and right and using them to populate a series of interconnected superhero books that give new meaning to the word “crossover”. It’s even fun to look at the way in which these connections usually come about, in the form of occasional guest-starring roles in different titles– the Fantastic Four occasioning to solve a case with Spider-Man, or the friendly neighborhood shutterbug himself swinging in to help the X-Men battle Magneto or mutant-haters for an issue or two. In the earliest times that characters meet one another in the old books, there’s often a kind of goofy sincerity at work that belies the epic scope that later creators would eventually push the crossover-system into. With Stan Lee and many of the other original authors, it was simply enough for the various heroes and villains to mingle without any real sense of narrative entanglement– nobody had to live or die permanently in their legendary showdowns, or even settle down into conflicts that expanded beyond the scope of their original storylines (superheroes, even with their villains, forever seem something of commitment-phobes).

In later years you could see drastic shifts in the various rogues galleries orbiting around all these protagonists, and even see rotating cast-members rotate out of one hero’s circle, and into another. Perhaps the definitive example of this occurred during Frank Miller’s storied run on the then second-tier title Daredevil, repurposing the classic Spider-Man mastermind villain Wilson Fisk, “the Kingpin of Crime”, into an all encompassing nemesis for the blind lawyer turned vigilante. At other times, it’s possible to see almost the entire roster of one book transcend into a new title, and all their old spots taken up by new characters– if it weren’t for the classic X-Men line-up of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel and Beast splitting for a brief while, we’d have never gotten the equally classic additions of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler or Colossus. However, this phenomenon of characters moving in and out of different books for keeps is something that really began in earnest with the cadre of invented and recycled characters that have made up the dream-team of superheroes known of the Avengers, and with the essential members of the multiple decades’ worth of various line-ups finally reaching the silver screen altogether after a four-year long round of origin stories and franchise table-setting, we can now witness the cinematic manifestation of the fabled Marvel Universe interconnectedness coming true before the eyes of millions in as mainstream a medium as it’s ever found. And my god, is it boring.

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By Bob Clark

In the modern film age, it’s possible for projects that began and failed to find a foothold in the movie industry gain a new life in any number of other ancillary markets. Projects that began as major motion pictures have found themselves resurrected in any number of forms, particularly as comics, where the shared visual components of each medium help ease the transition somewhat while providing a creative vehicle a little less bound by the restraints of time, money and competing egos. Some filmmakers have even found whole secondary careers in the realm of comics, with talents as disparate as Alejandro Jodorowsky to Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon penning scripts for mainstream superhero narratives and groundbreaking sci-fi epics that could never be told in the confines of film or television without breaking bank somewhere in the world. Furthermore, given the number of films both mainstream and indie alike whose roots begin as comic books, repurposing a screenplay as a graphic novel can just as easily wind up a mere detour back to the original destination of a feature film in the first place, in much the same way that John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men boomeranged from script to novel and back to script again. As such, it’s interesting to chart the development of Darren Aronofsky’s third film, The Fountain, from its roots as a prospective mainstream studio effort starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, to its second wind as a graphic novel illustrated by Kent Williams, and then back to its ultimate cinematic form starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, not only to observe its creative development through the channels of contemporary Hollywood, but moreover to be thankful that we wound up getting anything of value at all.

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By Bob Clark

The first time I watched Wim Wenders’ science-fiction epic Until the End of the World, it was under both the worst circumstances possible, but also some of the most interesting ones imaginable. Though the 1991 film has never been released on DVD in the United States, much less ever been given a stateside release of its full 280 minute cut that expands upon the truncated “Reader’s Digest” version that the director was forced to put together for its original run, it was long ago given a run in the now charmingly defunct medium of VHS. From there, somehow, it made the leap to digital downloads almost 20 years later when I found it while perusing through the video pages of the Playstation Network store, where I’d already picked up a digital copy of another such mind-bending sci-fi feature starring William Hurt, Altered States. As such, there was a kind of quaint thrill about the prospect of watching a movie about the one-time not-too-distant-future, now the increasingly more-distant past, through a means which would’ve been more or less inconceivable to the dated retro-futurist minds that cobbled together that film’s vision of days to come. It’s one thing to imagine the world put on the brink of annihilation by a falling nuclear satelite, the possibility of a camera that takes videos blind people can see, or a computer that can record and play back a sleeper’s dreams, but somehow it’s just a leap too far to imagine that we’ll outgrow physical digital discs or glass television and computer monitors.

That thrill was enough to make the experience of Until the End of the World just somewhat more bearable than it ought to have been, in that form. Oh, to be sure the movie was a joy to rediscover later on once I’d invested in a multi-region DVD player and picked up a German box-set of the director’s-cut “Trilogy” version of the film, which allowed the film and its early-90’s art-house idiosyncrasies to play out a little more loosely,  but at the length it was originally released in it was something of a chore to sit through. There are times when, due to cramped editing and an over-reliance on the narrative crutch that is voice-over narration, a two-and-a-half hour movie can feel much, much longer than one which spans over four hours, especially when one is dealing in the heady brand of near-future science-fiction, where the blend of face-value realism and elaborate exposition can make a story that’s supposed to be set only a week or two from today feel as infuriating and impenetrable as the densest of alternate-history tomes. And there are no better examples of this kind of genre-crisis filmmaking, or no worse experiences of it, than the 2007 high-concept sophomore slump that is Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.

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By Bob Clark

There are certain names that are so wholly identified with their characters and personae from fiction that once raised in another work, they carry with them a whole range of ideas, themes and moods that are unavoidable for those familiar with the originals in question. Usually, it’s easy to see the characters being identified with their namesakes– the recent film Declaration of War seemed a little on-the-nose with its pair of lovers named Romeo and Juliette, just slightly Frenchified and somewhere just within the range of acceptable thanks to how it provides a veneer-thin veil for the actors/filmmakers’ masking of the true-life story they put on the screen. Kevin Smith had a tendency to go very broad and obvious with some of his naming early in his career– Dante of Clerks living the perpetual hell of a convenience store in Jersey or Holden of Chasing Amy implying a naive, immature perspective on modern love and sexuality befitting Salinger’s troubled teen. Sometimes the naming conventions go farther and weirder in terms of how they affect both fictional characters and the people playing them– one wonders what jokes Godard was playing for all the names he gave Anna Karina, especially the Tolstoy gambit of that name itself. In the case of a movie like  Gregg Araki’s fifth film and biggest budgeted feature at that time, however, the choice of naming and the reference it carries arrives with something far more specific and yet at the same time fleeting, making it feel something like an unofficial adaptation. In this case, it’s hard to look at The Doom Generation and not think of Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan.

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